The First Crusade: The Call from the East

I first encountered Peter Frankopan’s work a few years ago when I read his global history The Silk Roads, which aimed to understand the world along an axis unfamiliar to most people: the pathways of exchange that linked Europe and East Asia known collectively as the Silk Road. While reading that book I came across a reference to this one, Frankopan’s first, and made a note to read it at some point. Preparing to teach a survey of world history before 1500, it seemed like an appropriate time to pick it up.

The First Crusade hinges on a simple conceit: historians of the crusades get swept away by the stirring oratory of Urban II at Claremont and the remarkable victories of the western knights that established crusader kingdoms and so miss the forest for the trees.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus (r.1081–1118) sits at the center of Frankopan’s retelling. When Pope Urban II issued his call for crusade and began preaching across most of Europe, he fired up his audiences with stories about the collapse of the Byzantine frontier and the horrors that the Turks visited upon their Christian brethren. Byzantium, the great Christian empire and one-time protector of Jerusalem, he said, was on the verge of collapse. Indeed, a Seljuk army under the command of Alp Arslan had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV in 1071. The empire had suffered additional setbacks in the two succeeding decades, including invasions by Norman knights who would go on to be Crusaders, and by the early 1090s a sudden turn for the worse in Anatolia that included the loss of Nicaea, a strategically-located and heavily-fortified city, prompted Alexios to make his appeal to Urban.

But neither was the Byzantine Empire decaying anachronism. Frankopan contextualizes Alexios’ actions in the institutional and diplomatic traditions of the Byzantine Empire. In this light, the beleaguered empire of the 1070s had recovered under Alexios’ careful hand in the 1080s, thwarting repeated invasions of the Balkans from both Norman knights and nomads from the north, while also choosing careful marriage alliances at Constantinople and stabilizing the situation in Anatolia through careful diplomacy that brought the Turkish leader Malik Shah into the imperial orbit. The death of Malik Shah in 1092 unravelled Alexios’ hard work and ultimately led to a attempted coup in the capitol.

These conditions, Frankopan argues, prompted Alexios to again turn to Byzantine diplomacy for a solution: the call from the east. In Urban II, he found an ally quarreling with the German Emperor Henry IV, who had installed his own Pope, Clement III, in Rome. Alexios’ appeal presented Urban an opportunity to claim legitimacy as the true pope. Urban’s call to arms promised knights wealth and the forgiveness of sin, thereby completing the necessary conditions for the crusade. In short order, thousands of soldiers gathered for war.

Compared to explanation of these machinations, Frankopan’s account of the campaign itself is almost perfunctory. He mentions the preparations in passing, offers explanations for the near-defeats turned spectacular victories won by the Crusaders, and duly mentions the thousands of crusaders who died along the way, but only briefly mentions People’s Crusade and does not explore the social or cultural sides of the campaign.

Instead, Frankopan keeps the focus on the Crusader leadership because that allows him to keep focus on their relationship with Alexios, who had hoped to regain Byzantine possessions in the East. All of the Crusader leaders swore oaths of fealty to the Emperor throwing their support behind his cause, but as the campaign surged forward they began to feel betrayed––because Alexios continued to negotiate with the Turks and, particularly, because they believed he was deliberately late with supplies––which ultimately led to the creation of independent Crusader States in the Levant. That is, with the exception of Baldwin, who spent two years ruling Edessa as Alexios’ delegate.

The First Crusade is a slim monograph, coming in at just over 200 pages before notes, meaning that it is not a new synthesis or a magnum opus. It is a relatively narrow thesis that achieves its aim, showing that the Byzantine context is the key to understanding the crusade. This diplomatic focus means that it is at times dry and the fact that the prose is rife with passive voice made certain chapters read like running into a stiff wind, but these are both superficial concerns. I already understood the legacies of the crusades (both the traditionally-numbered ones, as well as the Northern and Spanish crusades) in a global context in terms of trade, diplomacy, culture and religion, and I went into The First Crusade looking for a way to understand the start of the Crusades in the same light. Frankopan offers just that.

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I have since finished The Farthest Shore, the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle and begun Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla, a pop-science bestseller about how intuition and memory can deceive us.

There are no secret histories

I loved my Penguin Classics paperback of Procopius’ Secret History as an undergraduate. I still have the book in a box in my office, though I haven’t had cause to take it out recently. Procopius of Caesarea lived in the age of Justinian (r. 527–565 CE), earning a living as secretary and historian for the emperor’s talented general Belisarius. He wrote numerous official histories that detailed Belisarius’ campaigns as part of Justinian’s wars of reconquest, but is better known for the other thing he wrote. That other thing is the Secret History.

In the Secret History, Procopius goes full Alex Jones of the sixth century CE. He accuses the emperor of being a devil stalking the halls of the palace and bringing a devastating plague to the world. These pages reveal a special hatred for women. He accuses Belisarius’ wife of cuckolding her husband with their adopted son, and dedicates long passages to the behavior of Empress Theodora, describing her (alleged) sexual appetites in lurid, pornographic detail. But for all that Procopius reveals about social controversies of his age, the Secret History reads more like a bitter screed than a careful history debunking the official version of events. And for good reason. Published now as the Secret History it was known in the Byzantine Suda as the Anecdota (Ἀνἐκδοτα) or “Unpublished” works.

Procopius is a special case, but I have been thinking about this book recently in conjunction with the genre of popular history book touting to reveal the history your teachers never taught you in school. Between the extremes of conspiracy theory, there is a spectrum of media united in the claim to reveal the truth about the past. Done well, this manifests as, for instance, the 99 Percent Invisible podcast that explores aspects of things that aren’t secret, but also aren’t immediately evident. Frequently, though, they are marketed more explosively as secret histories or under a title promising to reveal arcana guarded by the implacable sentry that is the history textbook.

I love history because it is big and weird—so big, in fact, that the science-oriented Randall Munroe  sarcastically proposed axing all odd or even years.  I say something to this effect to my students at the outset of nearly every course. The rhetorical move made by media marketing itself as “what professors didn’t tell you” is that teaching history requires selection. People who teach US history, as I did last semester, lament the impossibility of covering 150 years or so with any degree of depth, and the problem grows exponentially when the geographical and chronological scope swells to, say, everything in World History before 1500––or even before 1969 as in a course I took in college. Leaving aside the issue of sources, expertise, and political pressures to censor out most scandal, finite class time necessarily leads to superficial and spotty coverage. 

Most history exists beyond the walls of the classroom. Books patiently sit on dusty shelves waiting for a curious mind to challenge the tyranny of the textbook.

(I also believe that history as a discipline undercuts its own authority by introducing students to the field through big, broad courses rather than narrower, idiosyncratic courses. Inverting this structure would start students off with classes that deal with material on a human level, with the specificity of storytelling and enough engagement to arm students with tools before concluding with surveys that tie together the specific material with discussion of broad themes after students were invested enough to appreciate the big picture. In other words, history is taught backward even if reversing course is nigh on impossible.)

Spotty coverage does not a secret history make. I stress in my courses that history is a process, both in doing history and in how it unfolds. Touting something a secret history is at best a marketing gimmick and at worst something more sinister, both of which devalue the process.

There are no secret histories, only history not yet written. Individual documents may be restricted and authorities may push a particular narrative, and in this sense HISTORY is incomplete—and will always be.